Monday, October 10, 2011

"You Can't Tame What's Meant to be Wild:" Top Ten Werewolf Movies

Werewolves are a subgenre of horror more known for hits and misses than vampires or zombies. There are classics, to be sure, but the two aforementioned genres seem to have more of them. It seems there's just something about these toothy, hairy bastards that's hard to get right. So with that said, let's look at some movies that did get it right, and did it really, really well.

10. Silver Bullet (1985)- This movie, starring Corey Haim and Gary Busey, remains one of the most under-appreciated Stephen King adaptions to date. King penned the script himself, based on his short novel "Cycle of the Werewolf." The story follows the murders plaguing the peaceful town of Tarker's Mills through the eyes of young, handicapped Marty Coslaw... who eventually realizes the killings are the work of a werewolf, and must convince his sister and uncle (Busey in one of his best roles) in time to stop it.

09. Werewolf of London (1935)- Just a few short years before they struck big with "The Wolf Man" Universal made this little sleeper hit. While lighter on story, it oozes with atmosphere and the effects even outdo The Wolf Man, though this is the only place in which it is almost a superior film.

08. Trick 'R Treat (2009)- While werewolves aren't the only creatures stalking this film, that's part of the charm. This Halloween anthology brought back the sense of fun and mystery that make both Halloween and anthology movies in general so much fun. The werewolves aren't on screen very long, but they're well-worth waiting for and offer an inventive twist on the lycanthropes.

07. The Company of Wolves (1984)- This werewolf film from director Neil Jordan precedes his "Interview with the Vampire" by almost ten years, and while it is a much less well-known film and has a far smaller budget, it is just as atmospheric and portrays its monsters just as alluring and scarily sympathetic as he would go on to do in Interview. The story is also an inventive and unique take on the ageless Red Riding Hood tale.

06. Dog Soldiers (2002)- I've talked about this film before, but it's always worth mentioning. It's a terrific horror film from Scottish director Neill Marshall, surpassed only by The Descent (2006). The story follows a group of soldiers on a routine training exercise, who find themselves plagued by the werewolves roaming the countryside. It's almost like a lycanthropic version of "Predator" only with a better story, scarier monsters, and deeper, more rounded characters. If you haven't seen the film yet, do so now, as a sequel and web series are finally on the way.

05. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)- Hammer Studios came close to topping the Universal originals in their heyday, with movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and this. This film stars Oliver Reed as a tragic man who has been doomed since birth to someday become a werewolf. It takes a while to build to the appearance of the beast, but when it happens it is well worth waiting for.

04. Ginger Snaps (2000). They don't call it the curse for nothing. There may never have been a more appropriate title for a horror movie before this. Ginger Snaps takes a unique (and smart) approach to the genre by exploring the werewolf as a metaphor for female adolescence. It seems off-balanced at first (before this, the werewolf had almost always been metaphor for man's testosterone and impulses, his hidden rage and "inner beast") but right from the get-go, this film works. It beautifully and frighteningly shows the transformation a young woman will go through, how scary that transformation can get. Especially when she's eating people.

03. The Wolf Man (1941). There really is no werewolf film more classic than this, and for admittedly good reason. This is one of the absolute best of the Universal classics. Lon Chaney, Jr. does a fantastic job portraying Larry Talbot, who is cursed to become a werewolf after being bitten by one in a gypsy camp. It's a very atmospheric, soft-spoken horror movie, and while the dual-performance of Larry and the Wolf Man is terrific and scary, most of the horror comes from how believably frightened Talbot is of his own condition. Chaney, Jr. reprised his role no less than three times, and no matter how silly the movies got, he always brought depth and integrity to the character.

02. The Howling (1981). It's a very ironic and interesting thing that the two best werwolf movies ever made came out in the same year. Before these two, the werewolf had always been a man with a lot of hair and fangs when portrayed on film. Both this film and the next on the list did everything they could to change that. The Howling is responsible for the monstrous, bipedal werewolf that has become the cinema staple ever since. On top of that, it is a very powerful mystery of a story with great performances all around that is, at its core, about the nature of repression.

01. An American Werewolf in London (1981). With that said, let's move onto the movie (which debuted two months before Howling) that edged it out of the top spot. Even more so than The Howling, this film was about bringing the notion of the werewolf into cynical, modern times. There are many references to the classics, it feels at first like it opens in an old horror film, and gets more and more modern as it goes along. That's the beautiful thing about this movie. Like it's cursed main character, it transforms gradually as the film goes on. It starts out almost as a comedy (it is after all from John Landis, director of The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon's Animal House) but as the werewolf threat becomes more real (and his best friend becomes more decomposed) it moves into new territory that is both scary and, in the end, very tragic.